Monthly Archives: August 2015

Day Thirty-one, Tupelo Press 30/30 Project (last day!)

Robert Okaji inspired me to do attempt the Tupelo Press 30/30 poetry project, and here is the poem he wrote with the title I gave him! What a wonderful poem!

O at the Edges

Rattlesnake sign

“Synapses and Other Conjunctions” is my 31st and final offering for the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project (9 poets agreed to write 30 poems apiece in 30 days, to raise funds for Tupelo Press, a non-profit literary publisher). Many thanks to Luanne Castle, who sponsored and provided the title. Since the 30-30 marathon officially ended yesterday, this poem will appear only on this site, and not on the 30-30 site.

Even though my participation in the 30-30 project ends today, please feel free to contribute to Tupelo Press! Every bit helps (even a dollar or two), and I’ve some other sponsorship opportunities, with corresponding incentives, listed here, which I will continue to honor over the next month.

If you’re so inclined, please visit the 30/30 blog at: Donate to Tupelo. Scroll down to “Is this donation in honor of a 30/30 poet?” and select my name, “Robert Okaji,” from the pull down…

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Filed under Writing

Three Questions: Luanne Castle

Editor Jenn Monroe of Extract(s) lit magazine asked me some very thought-provoking questions in today’s interview. Also, check out the excerpt from Doll God also published May 1 in Extract(s):


Filed under #AmWriting, Books, Doll God, Dolls, Interview, Literary Journals, Nonfiction, poems about dolls, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing prompt, Writing Tips and Habits

The 30/30 Challenge of Tupelo Press, and How I Proved I Have a Screw Loose

I’ve gone and done it. I must be crazy.

Throughout September, I will be “running” a poetry “marathon” for the Tupelo Press 30/30 project. By donating in recognition of my efforts, you will be supporting a fabulous independent, nonprofit press.

I promise to write a poem a day for 30 days. Since it took me decades to cough up not even twice that for my first poetry collection Doll God, you can see what a feat I am trying to accomplish.

To help preserve poetry as an art, it’s important to support the independent presses and literary magazines. These are the places that publish nearly all published poetry today. It hasn’t been a positive era for them. I’ve seen many lit magazines close up—and when the presses go out of business, we often don’t even hear about it.

Every dollar you donate will go toward the operation of the press, enabling it to continue publishing beautiful books that would not get picked up by large commercial publishers. You can read the daily poems, as well as the bios of this month’s poets, and donate here.

As incentives to donate, I am offering the following:

  • For a donation of $10, you tell me what subject or image you want to see in a poem, and I’ll write that poem.
  • For a donation of $20, I will dedicate a poem to you or someone of your choice.
  • For a donation of $40, I will send you or someone of your choice, a signed and personally addressed copy of my book, Doll God.
  • For a donation of $55, I will send you or someone of your choice, a signed and personally addressed copy of my book, Doll God, and I will dedicate a poem to you or someone of your choice.
  • For a donation of $100, you get two copies of Doll God and two dedications!
  • Remember that if you donate $129 for a Tupelo Press subscription, you will receive the 10 free books of their current series.

For any of the above donations, including the subscription of 10 books, please remember to click or write my name in the honor field. Then email me at and let me know what dedication or subject you are interested in. If you “earned” a copy or two of Doll God, please give me your mailing address and to whom you would like the book(s) addressed.

Again, you can read the daily poems, as well as the bios of this month’s poets, and donate here.

If you decide to help keep Tupelo Press publishing its amazing variety of books, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!

Wish me well, please. It starts tomorrow, and I’m nervous as can be!



If you are not able to donate, the other poets and I would still love for you to read our first draft work. I love feedback. Every day, I will post a link to that day’s poem over here so feel free to critique or pat me on the back (or the head, if you think that is more appropriate after reading the poem), encourage me, tell me what you like or what you don’t like. Or tell me a funny story or something completely unrelated that the poem reminded you of ;). Or just say hi in your own incomparable way so that I remember there is a world outside poetry. Gonna be an intense month!

One more thing: by November 1, I plan to take down all September’s 30/30 posts.

That’s us poets in the photo 😉


Filed under #AmWriting, Blogging, Doll God, Inspiration, Literary Journals, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, WordPress, Writing, Writing goals, Writing prompt, Writing Tips and Habits

Does a Tattoo Ward Off Old Age?

I’m calling Nakana, my new cat, Kana more often than Nakana. She’s been having some tummy and ear issues, so the vet gave her a full work up and thinks she has food allergies. She also said she thinks she is probably older than the eight years the shelter suspected. She might be 10 or 11. So not just a senior, but definitely an older cat! She’s a sweetheart, no matter what age she is. She also has a very bad spot of arthritis mid-back, probably caused by an earlier injury. I am so glad that she’s now part of our family so I can take good care of her.

But does it mean anything that she isn’t just barely a senior, but is instead, an old cat? She’s actually in a different stage of life than I had thought, although I recently had begun to suspect she might be a little older. Or it could be because of the arthritis. She is more stiff, less flexible, and more fragile than a younger cat.

I can’t help but relate the life stages of cats to . . . me.

When I was in my early 30s and in grad school, a professor referred to me as middle-aged. I had an idea that I looked a bit on the young side for my age, plus I still thought of myself as young. My children were little, I felt I was still too identified as my parents’ child, and I hadn’t even begun to do what I wanted to accomplish in life. I was shocked and spoke up. She said, “Well, you’re in the middle of the average life expectancy.” She was figuring that the average was 78 and 36 is half of that and that I was within a few years of 36, so hence I was middle-aged.

I actually hated hearing her say that. I didn’t agree at all that that was what middle-aged meant. And I still don’t agree. But what does middle-aged mean?

And what does elderly mean? I saw a news story once where the 69-year-old victim was identified as an elderly woman. I have never in my life considered a woman in her 60s as elderly. And now that I’ve crossed the decade threshold, I sure don’t. My mother is 80, and I’m not sure she’s elderly. Her community does have a lot of elderly people, but my mother in her red sports car and cute, trim appearance doesn’t seem elderly.

I asked Wikipedia about elderly, and it was no help, conflating elderly with senior citizen which by some accounts I am. Interestingly, museums and events I bought tickets for on our trip did not consider me a senior citizen. That way they could get more $ from hubby and me.

What do you call life before middle age? Is it youth? My son is 31 now, and he no longer considers himself young or youthful. Youngish, maybe. But squarely in the thirties decade where he will accomplish a lot and his life will become more “set.”

When you hear the words youth, middle-aged, senior citizen, elderly, old person, kid, child, teen, do you conjure up standard images? My elderly image is stooped and frail and in need of help from others.

Am I, at sixty, a senior? Not according to the Chinese Garden.

Middle-aged? Not according to people who think middle-aged is 40.  Am I approaching being elderly? Am I an old person?

I saw a couple on a ferry-boat that caught my attention. Their physical bodies were nearing elderly. They weren’t frail, but starting to slope over toward being stooped, with thin white hair, and heavily wrinkled faces. But she was wearing white jeans and a cute sporty top. Did this mean she wasn’t planning to be elderly?

Are all the 20 to 40 somethings covered with tattoos going to still give an impression of youth when they are 90? 95? just because they are tattooed?

Is it about what we think of ourselves? Or do our bodies decide?

Or are these stages of life set at certain ages, no matter how fit or frail one is. No matter how youthfully one dresses or how maturely one styles one’s hair.

Forget what you think you ought to think. What do you really think about identifying with the stages of life?

By the way, I’m not making myself into a tattoo gallery, no matter what.

Neither is Nakana.



Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, Cats and Other Animals, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing

A Couple Hours We Didn’t Think About Gluten

I know that I wrote on Friday that I couldn’t remember my experiences from our travels because of our gluten free troubles, but I am going to force myself to focus so that I can recall and maybe relive my visit to Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden.

Because the garden is based on old Chinese customs and philosophies for landscaping and architecture, being inside the garden transported me to my youthful ideas of China.

I’ve always been fascinated with Chinese history and culture, and so has my husband. In fact, in 11th grade, before we started dating, our history teacher put our class into groups to study various countries or regions. Hubby and I both stuck our hands up really fast when Miss Buehler said China. That’s how we first got acquainted, which led to our first date. (But that’s not the story that I’m here to tell you about today haha).

The garden was filled with plants native to China, all arranged according to a carefully planned design.

The architecture was also beautiful.

There was some lovely art displayed on a wall by Hsin-Yi Huang. They were ceramic bowls inspired by flowers.

A calligrapher created written art, as well.

After we toured the garden, we visited the teahouse. They offered tea flights (ritualized samplers of three kinds of tea). Because it would take longer than hubby wanted to sit there, we ordered two types of oolong tea, gluten free tea cookies, and lychees.

The teas were so good we bought tins of them both, as well as a teapot similar to that the teahouse used.

This was our view from inside the teahouse.

While we sat there, sipping our tea, hubby persuaded me that I needed a piece of art by Hsin-Yi Huang for my office wall. I reluctantly told him he was right ;).

Lest you think I bought stuff everywhere we went, this was it, other than small gifts for my mother and a friend. I’m not sure that I could have easily gotten the tea at home, and the teapot is necessary for the experience as it’s designed to eliminate use of a teaball and is made of clay (like the art). I hope to remember Portland when I drink the tea and see this beautiful art on my office wall.

Do objects bring back memories for you? Do they help you write about the memories? They do for me. I wrote this post by looking at the art, the teapot, and the cans of tea. And now I’m going to make myself a pot.


Filed under #AmWriting, Art and Music, Blogging, gluten free, gluten free travel, History, Nonfiction, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing, Writing prompt, Writing Tips and Habits

The Definitive Guide to Gluten Free Travel


My husband has celiac disease. Before his diagnosis, for over eight years he was sick with exactly 100 mainly neurological, rheumatologic, and digestive symptoms. He and I visited 41 doctors, trying to find the cause. Hubby eventually figured it out himself, but until his GI doctor got the results of his (5th) endoscopy she didn’t believe him. The lab report confirmed that he has celiac. And he’s got it pretty bad, especially for an adult. It can be life threatening in some children.

The only way to handle celiac is to avoid gluten entirely. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other grains. Unfortunately, going gluten free is not merely a matter of avoiding breads and desserts. Gluten is hidden in many processed foods.

The Attitude

People without celiac often say this to me or to hubby: “They have gluten free everywhere now.” Although I’m sure they don’t mean to, they sound so cavalier. In the U.S., we love a positive attitude. People with illnesses and “different abilities” are encouraged to show how brave they are. On the news we are deluged with feel good stories about people who have lost all their limbs creating masterpieces and armless people driving cars. In their TV interviews, they sound so upbeat. We speak of being inspired by them.

I don’t have to worry about being the sad sack with a pessimistic realistic attitude. I don’t have to feel that I should be an inspiration to others. I don’t have celiac. I’m not gluten free. If I eat gluten or not, I can’t tell the difference. So I CAN TELL YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT TRAVELING GLUTEN FREE.

When my husband was first diagnosed, the only way to eat at a restaurant was to take his own salad dressing and go to a restaurant with a chef-run kitchen that offers steak or fish/seafood. Then he had to order a steak unmarinated and a baked potato (hardly any restaurants serve the latter any more, by the way), and a salad without croutons or other contaminants. His only seasoning was salt and pepper and, if he was lucky, a little garlic.

Gluten Free Craze

Then the gluten free craze happened. This happened for two reasons. One is that the amount of people who are celiac (which is an auto-immune disease) and who are gluten intolerant (similar to an allergy, but not an actual allergy) has risen dramatically because our wheat has been created with 100 times the protein it had 100 years ago. NO KIDDING. And also because food manufacturers were adding it to processed food right and left. The other reason is that some people decided a gluten free diet was healthier or a way to lose weight (no, it’s not). Therefore, now it’s much easier to find gluten free food in stores and restaurants.

So How Does That Affect Travel?

Being gluten free while traveling is still a nightmare. You know all those gluten free menus in restaurants you see now? Most of those restaurants cannot provide a gluten free meal to people with severe celiac. People who are gluten intolerant (except the ones with a very severe version) and people who avoid gluten for other reasons don’t know when they have been “glutened,” but somebody like my husband suffers very much when they are glutened. The response from restaurants that do so tends to be that they never promised they were a gluten free environment.

Since hubby got sick 12 years ago, he has mainly only travelled for business, medical, and for our daughter’s college graduation. And he didn’t fly again until this past year when we visited my parents three times.

Now that hubby has been gluten free for a few years and is feeling so much better (with occasional bouts of illness generally related to restaurant food), we decided to see if we could travel. Not a trip where we go to my mother’s house and stock it with gluten free food and cook there. But an actual vacation adventure.

This is How A Celiac Fares During Travel

We had booked a three hour flight to Seattle. That is about as long as we dare to fly because hubby can’t eat food at airports as they are not equipped to offer “allergen free” foods. He has a weak stomach that has been caused by this illness. The man who once ate hot peppers dipped in fire hot sauce in Korea can now not even tolerate raw cashews on days of stress, such as flying day. Once we enter the airport, he can only eat the dry food we pack in his carryon. He brings rice cakes, rice crackers, a Kind bar, and an apple. I try to bring him some cheese as well, but I do worry because there is no way to keep it cold. Keep in mind that hubby is 190 lb of dense muscle. He works out 2 hours 5-6x week.

With a three hour flight, getting to the airport 1.5 hours early, .5 hour to get to the airport, and then time to get our baggage and rental car and get acclimated, I figured that he would be 6-7 hours without a meal. No problem. He had a piece of gluten free toast with cashew butter for breakfast. That was all he could handle before a flight, but he could wait the seven hours.

Well, our flight was three stinken hours late. That meant that he could not get a meal for 11 hours as we arrived at rush hour.

As an aside, is there a reason that Southwest Airlines has to offer as its only food choices gluten-coated peanuts and wheat crackers? Seriously? Since peanuts are such a dangerous allergy, why carry them at all? And why can’t one of the two options be gluten free?

That first night on our trip, after the long day at the airport and on the flight, we couldn’t find a restaurant that had gluten free options except for Morton’s steak house. We didn’t want to spend the money for such a pricey meal when we were tired and I had my own health issues at that point. But we had no choice. Guess what? With all their care, hubby still got glutened. We don’t know what item it was, but something must have been made incorrectly or been cross-contaminated.

To make a long horror story short, we spent our 12 days of vacation scrounging food. On two occasions, we found restaurants that didn’t gluten him and that we liked (one Persian and the other sushi) and returned the second day only for him to be sick within an hour or two. One day, we spent almost the entire afternoon and early evening searching for a meal. Every restaurant we went to either had run out of food or was closed. Some were closed because the owners had arbitrarily decided to close for a few days. Some were closed because they don’t serve dinner (typically, a gluten free restaurant is a gluten free bakery that offers lunch and maybe breakfast).

Making our restaurant research more difficult than usual (when it’s always bad enough), we were in Canada for much of our trip, and we couldn’t use much wifi on the road or while out and about. Because the world now relies on everyone individually accessing the internet, we couldn’t get much help at our hotels—and phone books? What are those?

The one highlight of our gluten free dining was that our 2nd to the last hotel

was a nice resort and offered two delicious (and tiny) gluten free desserts.

Unfortunately, we had eaten dinner elsewhere, so when hubby was sick

that night we didn’t know if it was dinner or dessert so we didn’t dare order again.

We carried gluten free bread, salad dressing (useful for bunless burgers if the restaurant didn’t have gluten free mayo, etc.), and tamari sauce (tamari sauce is only made with soy and not with wheat, and tastes about 50 times better than regular old soy sauce anyway). Note that unless you order gluten free single serve salad dressing online (Kraft Thousand Island is hubby’s fave), you have to keep an opened bottle of dressing refrigerated. Not an easy task while traveling.

We also travel with a toaster because hubby can’t use toasters previously used for gluten bread. 1/500 of a slice of wheat flour bread is enough to gluten him, so imagine what would happen with those toaster crumbs in his GI system. A humidifier and air purifier are necessary too because of damage caused by the disease over time. (I feel like I’m traveling with Niles Crane).

When we went to the gardens, aquarium, walking downtown or at the waterfront (the list goes on), we had to carry this stuff with us just in case. Nothing is more frustrating than finding a place that can offer that plain burger and not have any bread or condiment for it.

After a week and a half of this kind of travel, I came home exhausted. I couldn’t remember the places I experienced, but only felt haunted by the hunt for food (and beverage in some cases—gluten free coffee creamer, gluten free cocktail ingredients, gluten free beer).

Hubby was sick so much of the time. And we were so careful. But it’s not good enough. There is no such thing as gluten free travel.


Filed under #AmWriting, gluten free, gluten free travel, Memoir, Nonfiction, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing

Black Cat Appreciation Day?!

Yesterday was Black Cat Appreciation Day–and I missed it! Blogger Brandy Heineman writes about it in her post. Unfortunately, I was traveling and had been away from my black cats, Pear Blossom and Nakana, as well as Felix and Tiger, for what feels like months.

Brandy Heineman

How did I miss this?

Okay, the truth is, I didn’t miss it. August 17th is Black Cat Appreciation Day, and like practically all other news and current events, I learned about it on Twitter.

Nonetheless, as the person claimed by one exceedingly lovely 15-year-old black cat, I am somewhat flummoxed and embarrassed that I didn’t know about this in advance. However, I did manage to squeeze a few snaps into today’s timeline…

More kitty blogs!

There’s a “scratching posts” joke here, I think, but I’m not going to make…

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Filed under Blogging, Cats and Other Animals, Writing

You Wanted to Hear What That Flash Nonfiction Course Was Like?

Marie from 1WriteWay and I completed our Flash Essay on the Edge course. It was offered by Apiary Lit, which offers editorial services, as well as courses they call workshops.

The course instructor was talented writer and teacher Chelsea Biondolillo. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Passages North, Rappahannock Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Shenandoah, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Wyoming and is a 2014-15 O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University. You can check out Chelsea here or do a search for her pieces in online magazines. Her knowledge of the genre and generosity to share that knowledge with her students was outstanding.

I took the course because I hadn’t written for months, mainly because of my father’s illness and death. Knowing the way I operate, I figured that a course would force me to focus and get a little writing done.

As planned, Marie and I evaluated the course when we were finished. We are both posting a list of the pros and cons of the course, as we saw it. At the end of the list, I’ll give you my additional impressions. Check out Marie’s post because she will give her own impressions.

Course Textbook


  • The teacher prep was outstanding. She provided a wealth of readings, which were useful in showing me what flash nonfiction can look and sound like.
  • The course was only four weeks, so I found that to be very manageable. If it had been longer, I would have been too stressed during the summer and at this time in my life.
  • The instructor generally gave useful feedback, seemed qualified in the subject, and was very nice. She seemed to love her subject.
  • The instructor was accessible, responding within the same day if there was a question or concern.
  • Other than a problem I will list under CONs, the website was pretty easy to negotiate.
  • The online classroom had various forums that enabled you to share your work with the other students and have discussions.
  • The writing prompts were generally interesting, but I didn’t feel tied to them, which was good.
  • The course was not graded.  I could focus on what I wanted to turn in, not what I thought I had to turn in in order to get an A.
  • The course got me writing without adding stress to my life.
  • I got more writing done in this past month than I would have otherwise.
  • I feel that I know where to go with flash nonfiction now. It would be ideal to get more feedback down the road on attempts at Flash Nonfiction, but at least I feel much more comfortable with the genre from taking this course.
  • Above all, I had fun with the readings and the writing.


  • Although there were forums available, we had no real discussion of any of the readings. We were not strongly encouraged to interact with each other. We had maybe one discussion prompt during the whole course.
  • The readings and essay examples were available through either some kind of Adobe program that took a bit of time to figure out, or through hyperlinks that weren’t always easy to download.
  • We posted our written assignments privately to the instructor so I had no way of learning from what others had turned in or from reading instructor comments on the work of others. I didn’t care for this method as it diminished what I could learn from the course by a hefty percentage. I suppose this is the difference between the workshop method and a traditional style class.
  • We felt isolated in this class and had little interaction with anyone but each other and the instructor.  In the discussion forum, one other student interacted with us, and another made a couple of independent comments.  Other than that, it was a strangely quiet class.
  • Two platforms were used for the course:  an online classroom and a blog, so sometimes I had a little trouble negotiating the course. Sometimes I had to login in two places. This inconvenience turned out to be less of a problem than I first anticipated, but it could be streamlined.  The blog material could have been included on the classroom platform.
  • Since I don’t know how many people were in the course, I don’t know the instructor’s workload. My belief is that in a course that is short in length, the instructor should return assignments in short order. The lag time between turning in an assignment/beginning reading for a new lesson and getting the instructor’s feedback on my previous assignment was a little too long for my comfort.
  • The price at $199 was a little steep for four weeks and no discussion/no workshopping.


 I want to make clear that I am really glad I took the course. Apiary hired a qualified instructor and offered a solid, contemporary course. There was so much that was right about the course. But I think it needs a little tinkering to make it better in terms of both learning environment and the economy of the course.

The above list really hits the main points of what I liked and didn’t care for about the course. The oddest thing for me was working in such an isolated environment. I’ve been in many workshops, and this isn’t a workshop. In workshops, your work is presented to the teacher and classmates. Typically, you receive feedback from both the instructor and at least a fair number of peers. I learn this way from what several people have to say about a piece. And I learn a lot from reading the work of others and seeing what all, especially the instructor, have to say about a variety of writing.

That said, there are people who hate workshops, generally because they have had a bad experience with one. I also find it fun to diss them sometimes. But, overall, they are an effective way to improve one’s writing.

The class seemed eerily quiet, perhaps because it wasn’t a workshop. But if we had had discussions about our readings, that would have provided some connection between students.

One other student (besides Marie and me) did participate in the class as much as possible. The course had a feature that she and I both used. It was called the Work-Sharing Blog. We were allowed to post anything we wanted to and see if anybody would give us feedback. It was not encouraged by the instructor or the course setup, but this other student and I both took advantage of it. I was thrilled to get feedback from her and from Marie on a piece I’ve struggled with.

I’ve taken online writing courses from a variety of schools/companies. They all have their pros and cons. For what I wanted this summer, Apiary’s course satisfied me fairly well.

If you are looking for an online writing course, my suggestion would be to decide how you want to learn and then ask questions. If you want a workshop, ask if all students will be sharing their work with the class and if the class will be providing peer feedback. Will there be guidelines for providing that feedback? The guidelines protect the writer from snarky or downright mean classmates. If you don’t want a workshop, ask those questions, too. Be aware that the majority of online writing courses are workshop-based.

Have fun! It’s so rewarding to get motivation, specialized readings, and writing feedback all in one place.

Once I get my thoughts together on the subject, I’ll post something about the genre of flash nonfiction, to give you an idea of what we were working on.


Filed under #AmWriting, Creative Nonfiction, Editing, Essay, Flash Nonfiction, Inspiration, Literary Journals, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing goals, Writing prompt, Writing Tips and Habits